High blood pressure is a serious health problem, one that you need to get under control as quickly as possible. If your blood pressure is in the high normal to Stage 1 hypertension range (131 to 159 over 85 to 99), weight loss and some other important lifestyle changes may well be enough to bring it down to safer levels. If your blood pressure is higher than that, you may need antihypertensive medication —but weight loss and lifestyle improvements can definitely still help.
Step 1: Lose Weight
Because obesity is the leading risk factor for hypertension, losing weight is the most important step you can take to lower your blood pressure—and improve other aspects of your health at the same time. You don't need to trim down a lot to start seeing the benefit. Losing just 10 pounds will have a positive effect; losing 10 percent of your body weight will be even better. As a general rule, your systolic blood pressure (the higher number) will drop one point for every pound you lose.1 In practical terms, that means losing just 10 pounds could lower your blood pressure from the high normal range (130 to 139 over 85 to 89) back to normal (130 over 85 or lower). As your blood pressure drops, so does your risk of a heart attack or stroke.
The controlled carbohydrate approach to weight loss is particularly effective in helping your blood pressure. When you follow the Atkins Nutritional Approach™, you lose weight steadily and easily on a diet that's naturally high in nutrients such as potassium and magnesium that have been shown to help reduce blood pressure (see “Mineral Supplements for Hypertension,” below, for more on this). A controlled carb program also helps lower high blood sugar. And because high blood pressure and high blood sugar are very closely linked, you help improve both health problems simultaneously.2
For some (although not all) people with hypertension, reducing the amount of salt in the diet has a beneficial effect. Today most Americans eat about 3,400 milligrams, or about a tablespoon, of salt each day. If you're salt-sensitive, doing Atkins will effortlessly reduce the amount of salt in your diet—in fact, you'll probably easily get down to a much healthier daily salt intake of about 1,800 milligrams, or about a teaspoon. That means you’ll still be able to add a touch of salt to your food to bring out the flavor. Why? Because most of the salt Americans get from their diet comes from highly processed convenience foods, fast food meals and snacks—and on Atkins, you'll be eating a lot less of those.
Step 2: Make Lifestyle Changes
Important as weight loss is for lowering your blood pressure, other changes are just as crucial. And likewise, such changes will improve not only your blood pressure but also your overall health.
Smoking is a good example. In addition to all the other well-known health risks of smoking, it raises your blood pressure, as does alcohol consumption. Even small amounts of alcohol can raise your blood pressure. If you regularly drink wine or spirits and have been diagnosed with high blood pressure, consider limiting yourself to one drink a day or even eliminating alcohol completely. (Of course, you will not be drinking any alcohol on the Induction phase of Atkins.)
Of all the lifestyle changes, however, exercise is perhaps the most important for lowering your blood pressure. In fact, an analysis of 54 major studies on the value of exercise for high blood pressure showed without question that regular exercise can lower your systolic blood pressure by nearly 4 points and lower your diastolic pressure by just over 2.5 points. Best of all, you get the benefit no matter how old you are, how much you weigh or how high your blood pressure is.3
The Drawbacks of Drugs
If your blood pressure is already at or above Stage 1 (141 over 90 or higher), you may need to take medication in addition to losing weight and making the lifestyle changes mentioned above. While drugs for hypertension are effective, they often have unpleasant side effects such as dry cough, fatigue and erectile dysfunction, and some may actually raise your blood sugar and cholesterol levels. In addition, many hypertension drugs are expensive—and most patients end up taking a combination of at least two different medications.
Lowering your blood pressure the natural way through weight loss, exercise and other lifestyle changes takes time, however. The risks of uncontrolled high blood pressure are too serious to wait the three to six months it may take to start seeing improvement. While you work on your weight-loss and exercise program, you may need to take medication to lower your pressure more quickly. As you lose weight and get more active, your blood pressure may well slowly drop below the lower level you achieved with the medication. When this happens, you may be able to cut back on your medication or even stop it completely. (Don't do this on your own—always discuss changing or stopping your medication with your doctor first.) And even if you still need to take drugs to help manage your hypertension, by losing weight and exercising more, you improve your overall health, your appearance and your outlook on life.
Mineral Supplements for Hypertension
If you've lost weight and started exercising but your blood pressure is still in the high normal to Stage 1 hypertension range (130-159 over 85-99), you may be able to bring it down some more by getting more of the trace minerals potassium, magnesium and calcium. Because potassium and magnesium supplements can upset your digestion, the best way to get more of these important minerals is by adding lots of fresh vegetables and nuts to your diet—exactly what you do when you do Atkins.
Just one ounce of dry-roasted almonds, for example, gives you 84 milligrams of magnesium—nearly a quarter of the recommended daily amount for a woman. The recommended daily amount of potassium is 4,700 milligrams for an adult. That sounds like a lot, but there's 228 milligrams in half a cup of cooked broccoli, 419 milligrams in half a cup of cooked spinach, and 403 milligrams in a 3.5-ounce serving of steak. In fact, eating the controlled carb way it's easy to get 4,000 milligrams of potassium a day from your food—and that's the amount recent studies have shown really helps lower your blood pressure.4
Getting extra calcium from your diet or from a supplement may also help bring your blood pressure down.5 Good controlled carb sources of dietary calcium include cheese, nuts and leafy green vegetables such as turnip greens and kale.
In addition to adding more minerals to your diet, talk to your doctor about taking hawthorn supplements. The well-regarded German Commission E has approved this herbal remedy in the form of hawthorn leaf with flower for treating high blood pressure.6 The amino acid taurine is also sometimes helpful for hypertension, because it can help improve your body's salt/potassium balance.7
1. Whelton, P.K., Appel, L.J., Espeland, M.A., et al. "Sodium Reduction and Weight Loss in the Treatment of Hypertension of Older Persons," Journal of the American Medical Association, 279, 1998, pages 839-846.
2. Spangler, J.G., Bell, R.A., Summerson, J.H., and Konen, J.C., "Hyperinsulinemia in Hypertension," Archives of Family Medicine, 7, 1998, pages 53-56, and Bonner, G., "Hyperinsulinemia, Insulin Resistance, and Hypertension,"Journal of Cardiovascular Pharmacology, 24, supplement 2, 1994, pages S39-49.
3. Whelton, S.P., Chin, A., Xin, X., and He, J., "Effect of Aerobic Exercise on Blood Pressure: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized, Controlled Trials," Annals of Internal Medicine, 136, 2002, pages 493-503.
4. Harsha, D.W., Lin, P.H., Obarzenek, E., et al., "Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension: A Summary of Study Results, DASH Collaborative Research Group," Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 99, supplement 8, 1999, pages S35-S39.
5. McCarron, D.A., and Reusser, M.E., "Finding Consensus in the Dietary Calcium–Blood Pressure Debate," Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 18, supplement 5, 1999, pages 398S-405S.
6. Blumenthal, Mark, ed.,Herbal Medicine: Expanded Commission E Monographs (Newton, Mass.: Integrative Medicine Communications, 2000).
7. Kohashi, N., and Katori, R., "Decrease of Urinary Taurine in Essential Hypertension," Japan Heart Journal, 24, 1983, pages 91-102.